'Avatar' opens 3D floodgates

European Film Market has pick of 3D projects

BERLIN -- The phenomenal success of James Cameron's "Avatar" has opened up a new dimension for independent producers and sales agents who are pushing 3D features into the market at a rate that rivals Pandora's flying banshees.

At Berlin's European Film Market, 3D titles of all genres and sizes -- from Metropolis International's "Space Chimps 2" (kids animation) to Fortissmo's "The Shock Labyrinth: Extreme" (Japanese horror) to Protagonist Pictures' "Street Dance 3D" (dance movie) to Cornelson Films' "Killing Bee 3D" (live-action revenge thriller) -- are generating hype and heat.

"We're in a real bubble at the moment in the wake of 'Avatar,' which really changed the game," Metropolis

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International chairman Ralph Kamp told THR. "3D is definitely something that is getting buyers, and audiences, very excited right now."

Kamp reports "fabulous" interest in "Animals United," a 3D family film produced by Germany's Constantin Film, which Metropolis is selling off a 15-minute promo reel in Berlin. After the first look on Saturday, a bidding war began for a number of European territories.

Anticipation is high ahead of today's world premiere of Takashi Shimizu's "The Shock Labyrinth: Extreme 3D," which Fortissmo is handling. The ghost tale from the director of "The Grudge" already has pre-sold to several territories, including the U.K., where it will go out under Artificial Eye's Chelsea Film label, Germany (Senator), Russia, Eastern Europe, Central America, Vietnam and Argentina.

"In many territories we are going to be the first independent 3D film to deliver post 'Avatar,'" Fortissimo boss Michael J. Werner told THR. "That's a bit of a mixed blessing but it does allow us to capitalize on what might be a limited window of opportunity."

"Avatar" opened the door for 3D films worldwide because cinemas rushed to convert to the format to be ready in time for the James Cameron movie. Suddenly, there are thousands of digital screens waiting to be filled.

A recent study by PriceWaterHouseCoopers estimates that by 2014, up to 20%-30% of all screens in the U.S., 15%- 25% in Europe and between 8%-18% in Japan, will be 3D.

"We saw the business opportunity in territories like Portugal that were ahead in the penetration in theaters," Lucas Mackey, an executive producer on Spanish Christmas-themed digital 3D pic "Holy Night," said. "We saw that 15% of the copies were responsible for 50% of the boxoffice draw. That was significant."

Evidence of the current craze around 3D: Last week, Dygra Films signed a deal with "Madagascar" screenwriter Billy Frolick for the English-language version of "Holy Night," even as Dygra shops the original, unfinished Spanish version to international buyers in Berlin.

Other 3D projects stirring up interest in Berlin include Filmax's big-budget "Magic Journey to Africa," billed as Europe's first full-length live-action 3D film, and NonStop Entertainment's "Moomins," an animated children's feature, which is the first 3D title out of Scandinavia and has already been sold in Berlin to Russia, Dubai, Egypt and Lebanon.

Not all is rosy on the 3D front however. One buyer noted that with the domination of American 3D fare like "Alice in Wonderland," European and Asian exhibitors may find themselves hard pressed to find space for locally grown 3D fare.

"At the moment, there is a great opportunity for the independents," Fortissimo's Werner said. "Six months down the road, the studios may have ramped up their 3D production to such an extent that we might be shut out and not have the access to those screens. If a theater only has a few digital screens and five big studio pictures are coming down the pipe, you don't have to be a military strategist to see what decision they are going to make."

By the time summer blockbuster season rolls around, the studios may have squeezed the independents out of the 3D market. But for now, the independents are taking advantage of their window of opportunity. If one of these new 3D titles at EFM hits big, it could establish a beachhead for all those indie digital titles to come.

Pamela Rolfe in Spain and Kirill Galetski contributed to this report.